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ERP Journal: Article

Doing Mobile Right

Doing Mobile Right

What work is now being done in a mobile setting that can and should be mobile-enabled? Can it be simplified or made better through mobilization? Who are the stakeholders impacted by this change - customers, staff, finance? Whatever the key driver, no organization should embark on a mobile project without a clear understanding of the business value of the solution.

New technology deployed in business during the 1980s and 1990s has helped companies increase productivity and efficiency. These tools, such as the Internet, supply chain management, and ERP software have helped companies deliver products and services quicker, better, and at lower cost. They have also created a new ecosystem within the enterprise with the ability to support more transactions of various kinds and almost instantaneous information flow.

Today, mobility is the natural evolution to building a more effective workplace. In the "pre-mobile" world, these technology solutions were available for use only when staff were in their offices. But now, in an increasingly mobile world, they are pervasively available and can provide benefit anywhere. Mobility is the key to further unleashing the full capabilities of information technology within the enterprise and to realizing the benefits it can deliver.

The computing revolution has meant that workers now regularly use computing tools to do their job; mobility allows for those information tools to be available essentially anytime, anywhere. Putting computing capability at the point of activity decreases the difficulty and cost of accessing needed information, and reduces human error and time lags. This in turn tends to lower transaction costs for the organization.

In the pre-mobile world, field service employees would generate handwritten forms or work orders as part of their job. These forms, would then be brought back to an administrative office for re-entry into an enterprise accounting system. This would typically happen many days later - affecting cash flow and potentially creating a customer service problem. It also introduced the risk of data entry errors.

With a mobile solution, this same field technician creates an electronic work order in real time at the point of activity. Correct data is entered and confirmed by a customer and in real time, or close to it, this data is replicated on the enterprise servers, generating immediate invoicing. The potential for savings is significant: staff do not spend as much time entering and accessing data; data entry errors or omissions are eliminated; and cash flow is improved. Many businesses are already achieving these benefits in their supply chain or their field service operations, and this will lead to broader use of mobile computing solutions across other areas of their business.

The benefits of mobile solutions are becoming more apparent. Here are some critical focus areas to help ensure that a mobile solution is deployed successfully and realizes a return on investment.

Understand Staff Needs
Unlocking this mobile advantage requires implementing the appropriate mobile solution to suit the specific and identifiable need. Most successful mobile deployments begin with the realization that "we have a problem." This problem might be that a company has to do more work with less people or it might be the incremental interest cost incurred by taking two weeks to invoice a customer. Whatever the key driver, no organization should embark on a mobile project without a clear understanding of the business value of the solution.

Identification and understanding of the work being done today manually and the potential benefit of mobilizing this work is the starting point. Period. What work is now being done in a mobile setting that can and should be mobile-enabled? Can it be simplified or made better through mobilization? Who are the stakeholders impacted by this change - customers, staff, finance, or other?

It is essential for a company to first clearly identify the business problem to be solved and the potential benefit realized. Beginning an initiative with a vague notion about the need to give everybody a PDA or Smartphone is not the right place to start. Start with the business process and application opportunity that mobility can help address.

Understand the Work Environment
A field service worker will have very different needs and challenges when using a mobile solution than someone tracking test samples in a hospital setting. By identifying the specific work context, the correct mobile computing device can be selected. A "one device fits all" strategy is doomed to failure. Giving PDAs to your staff and somehow hoping for the right outcome is a false hope.

It's important to understand the various user groups being mobilized and to classify their needs accordingly. In a broad rollout, usually one device will not fit all needs. Various classes of workers may need varying devices, depending on the nature and location of the work. Some workers will need the ability to enter large amounts of information, whereas others may need to access small amounts of information. In such a scenario, the first category of user may require a larger screen device with keyboard capability. The second class of worker may only need a PDA-form factor, non-keyboard device. Matching the right device to the right user class is extremely important to the rollout and ongoing support of the mobile solution.

Whether in the office environment or outdoors, mobile computers are now designed and built for these varying conditions. The trend by many companies to use low-cost PDAs to start mobile deployment often causes grief. The challenges presented with workers performing in the extreme temperatures of a freezer warehouse or the rough-and-tumble of daily field service work must be considered in the criteria for hardware selection.

Cost of Ownership
Companies should understand the total cost of ownership (TCO) of their mobile computing device. The goal is to reduce this TCO over a reasonable timeframe, not to find the lowest possible initial capital cost of the mobile device and accessories. The TCO of a $500 PDA can quickly exceed the TCO of a $2,000 durable product if the PDA has to be replaced and repaired on a regular basis.

The Application Software and Middleware
The software application used by mobile workers in support of their work may be an existing application or a newly developed or purchased mobile application. In most cases, companies prefer to mobilize existing ERP/CRM or legacy systems to leverage the architecture and investment already in place. Doing so makes sense when a large investment has been made in an enterprise software platform. In such scenarios, the goal is to create a mini-application on the device side that can access and update data on the enterprise server side. This often requires some minimal additional programming, but will require a properly selected or developed middleware solution to manage the flow and exchange of information between the mobile computer and the enterprise system. A wide variety of capable middleware platforms is now available from many leading vendors and solution providers.

Sometimes completely new applications have to be purchased or written to provide a mobile solution, since mobilization of the existing ERP system and process may not meet the needs of a particular mobile user group. Specific mobile applications like dispatching and field work order management might require new software and create the need for new business processes that are not automated currently.

Another key consideration is the operating system (OS) of the mobile computing device chosen. Generally a company should try to standardize when possible to ensure consistency and ease of support. Consistency with the existing enterprise operating system platforms might also be a consideration. Mobile operating systems from Microsoft, Symbian, or Palm each have strengths and weaknesses that will vary with the application and need. There is no need to have the mobile OS match the enterprise OS platform since open-standard connectivity enables a Palm or Symbian solution to work within a Linux, Microsoft, or other enterprise platform.

It is usually prudent to keep an open mind and choose the device that is appropriate for the class of user, rather than allowing the mobile OS to become the deciding factor. Having said this, there are considerations, such as development of the application for the device side of the solution, where a certain mobile OS choice may make more sense.

The Solutions Provider
Choosing the right partner to assist with the integration and deployment of a mobile solution will make all the difference in its success. In-house development, implementation, and training can minimize initial costs, but must be weighed against the option of using a third-party systems integrator or value-added reseller with proven experience.

If creating the solution in-house proves to be too resource-intensive, companies should consider using outside solution vendors with deep mobile experience. Utilizing a vendor experienced in providing all of the pieces of a mobile solution is probably the best option if your organization has limited internal capability or resources.

The Wireless Data Network
Another important choice to be made is the selection of a wireless network service provider. The wireless network (whether Wi-Fi/802.11, GPRS, CDMA, or a combination of technologies) must be selected using criteria such as required coverage, data speed, network capacity, operating cost, and reliability. Sometimes multiple providers must be used to provide proper data coverage. In many applications, the greatest ongoing cost of a mobile solution is often the cost of providing wireless data coverage. There are many ways to minimize such costs, including remembering that mobility and real-time wireless are not necessarily synonymous. Solutions can be designed using occasional synchronization of data once or twice during the day to reduce wireless data costs.

Supporting the New Solution
After the system is deployed, there needs to be an understanding of who "owns" the ongoing support of the devices and users with a clear plan to over-support the mobile solution during the first 60-90 days after implementation. A third party or the internal IT function may be selected to provide this user support, but this needs to be given some serious consideration as the project unfolds.

Data Security
When a company mobilizes access to corporate data, appropriate security is required. Security is especially important where mobile workers have confidential corporate data on their devices. This should not be an afterthought; rather, security must be an important part of the full mobile solution. The appropriate level of security is dependent on the nature of business operations and sensitivity of data transmitted. Technology solutions exist today that will help users secure corporate data in a mobile world. Some of these solutions can encrypt and lock data on the mobile device and others can ensure that the data is not accessible as it is wirelessly transmitted. Security needs to be considered at key touch points in the solution.

Consider a Pilot
Many companies have learned that before engaging in a larger-scale mobile deployment involving hundreds or thousands of staff, a small controlled pilot is the best way to ensure success. Selecting a subset of the staff group to use a preliminary solution and to test-drive various mobile devices provides a great way to ensure that the larger rollout is risk-minimized and delivering on its promise. Embarking on a large first-time mobile rollout should never be considered until it has been proven on a smaller scale. This only makes good business sense.

Conclusion
Mobility frees workers from the constraints of wired systems and provides real-time access to information in multiple environments. Mobility will now enable more and more companies to leverage the existing capability available within their offices into a mobile environment. That environment might be a warehouse, a hospital, or anywhere else they are required to do their work. What's common among all of these solutions is a need to clearly identify where mobility can add value, to fully understand the user's needs and work requirements and to follow best project management practices as a solution is deployed. Keeping these things in mind will ensure that your mobile investment delivers on its potential.

SIDEBAR

Bindi Ice Cream Relies on Rugged Devices to Power Its Mobile Computing Solution
There are many examples of successful mobile deployments in enterprises today. In the supply chain of major consumer packaged goods companies, wireless and mobile data collection has been in wide use for over a decade supporting mission-critical functions. Large teams of field service workers today are utilizing a mobile computing solution in their daily work to better serve customers and improve efficiencies for the business. No longer are mobile solutions at the "bleeding edge."

Italian ice cream maker Bindi is world-renowned for its imaginative ice cream products, cakes, and desserts. The delicate nature of the products and the challenges in the manufacturing process mean that the timely handling of raw material in their supply chain is critical.

Bindi required its warehouse to be kept at a temperature of -22°F to maintain the quality of its frozen products. The company also has about 80,000 containers delivered to its facility per year, creating complex logistics management issues. The major business need in the supply chain was for automatic individual identification and tracking of each Bindi product through the warehouse where the temperature could vary from -22°F to 32°F.

Bindi chose to utilize a mobile computing solution to address these needs. This mobile solution included freezer-rated handheld computers and rugged vehicle-mount terminals as well as wireless access points to create a high-speed wireless network. The deployment of this mobile solution at Bindi resulted in a material improvement in their warehouse operations and a significant reduction in paperwork and human error.

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